PITTSBURGH – NFL teams often look at their third preseason game as the dress rehearsal for the regular season.
Starters play at least a half. Game plans are put into place. The intensity is ratcheted up.
Having stumbled and bumbled through their first two preseason games – albeit in limited play – the Steelers are hoping for a little better performance when they host the Kansas City Chiefs tonight.
“We look forward to proceeding in this game and developing some legitimate game plan things situationally, particularly areas that we haven’t excelled in,” said head coach Mike Tomlin. “It will be good to put together a third-down plan, a red zone plan, things of that nature, and hopefully it manifests itself in terms of production on the field.”
That production hasn’t been there to this point. Penalties and turnovers have plagued the offense, and the team has yet to score a touchdown in six possessions with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
“You want to win every game you play,” said Roethlisberger, who has thrown more interceptions for touchdowns (1) than touchdowns in this preseason.
“That being said, the ones that start in a couple of weeks are a little more important.”
But time is running out for Roethlisberger and company to show they’re ready for the regular season opener against Tennessee Sept. 8 at Heinz Field.
The Steelers starting offense has relied on the running game while they sort out a crowded backfield situation. That unit got even a little more unclear this week with the loss of rookie Le’Veon Bell for at least a few weeks with a mid-foot sprain and the addition via trade of veteran Felix Jones on Friday.
Holdovers Isaac Redman, who had been a co-starter with Bell, and Jonathan Dwyer, the team’s leading rusher in 2012, will likely both get carries with the first team tonight.
“There are a lot of jobs open, starting jobs, third-down jobs,” said Redman. “For now, Le’Veon Bell is down. We are a little banged up. I am looking to step up and lead this room.”
Defensively, the Steelers have been a little more solid.
In the preseason opener, it forced a field goal following a blocked punt that gave the Giants the ball at the Pittsburgh 5. Last week at Washington, the first-team unit provided some quarterback pressure and forced some turnovers – most notably, a fumble recovery by first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones.
But it’s also given up a couple of touchdown passes, including a 57-yard completion against the Giants.
“When we’re out there getting sacks, that’s due to the push up the middle. That’s due to the secondary doing a great job covering,” said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who recorded a sack last week.
“The main thing is just to get turnovers, help our offense out. Allow them to put some points on the board. Get some three-and-outs, get some turnovers and score. That’s always our objective when we go out there.”
The defense will get a boost from the return of cornerback Cortez Allen, who is expected to replace free agent loss Keenan Lewis in the starting lineup. Allen has not appeared in a preseason game after requiring a minor knee surgery in the first week of training camp.
His return will put the defense at full strength for the first time this preseason as it, too, tries to work itself into regular season form.
“It’s still a work in progress,” said safety Ryan Clark. “I think that’s what the preseason is, and I think it all depends on how you evaluate it.
“As a team, to lose any time is not what you want to do but (to) also lose the way we’ve been losing – penalties on third-down, penalties on defense, giving up long plays and allowing people to score – it’s those little things that you have to fix now, because during the regular season they’ll bite you in the butt.”
Odds and end zones
In addition to Allen, tight end David Johnson is expected to see his first playing time of the preseason. Johnson, who suffered a torn ACL in the first preseason game of 2012, was activated from the PUP list earlier this week. ... Eric Kush, a California University and Chartiers Valley High School graduate, is currently listed as No. 2 at center on Kansas City’s depth chart behind Rodney Hudson. Kush, who wears No. 52, was signed by the Chiefs as an undrafted rookie.